Main Engine Cut Off

Episode T+159: SpaceX Demo-2 Carries Crew to ISS

It happened! American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. Bob and Doug successfully launched, docked to the ISS, and joined Expedition 63. I talk about what this means for SpaceX, NASA, space policy, and where things go from here.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 37 executive producers—Brandon, Matthew, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and six anonymous—and 371 other supporters.

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Great Moment Theory, Representation, and Role Models

Loren Grush wrote a really nice piece over at The Verge, about the cognitive dissonance of DM-2:

At 9:30AM ET on Tuesday, three American astronauts symbolically rang the Nasdaq opening bell from space — a celebration of SpaceX’s historic launch that sent astronauts into orbit three days prior. The short ceremony played out live on the Nasdaq’s giant screen in Times Square, with various NASA personnel clapping as one astronaut clanged a bell on the International Space Station.

The video glowed over the same streets where, in the days and nights before, thousands of demonstrators had gathered nearby to protest systemic racism and police brutality against black Americans.

NASA astronauts ringing the opening bell is always going to be weird, but it’s especially tone deaf during nationwide protests of racism, an ongoing pandemic, and a widespread economic downturn.

It also seems quite certain that Great Moment Theory—the theory of an astonishing achievement uniting everyone across the country in a single moment—is rarely if ever true in the moment, and we tend to write those stories looking back from decades in the future.

Though NASA and its projects provide a source of hope through scientific advancement and inspiration, those things can often feel unreachable to many of us. However, the platform it provides for representation and for role models to step forward into the public eye is hugely important.

The joint NASA/SpaceX launch webcast was hosted by, among many others, SpaceX engineer (and frequent SpaceX webcast host) Lauren Lyons and beloved NASA astronaut Leland Melvin (who you probably remember as the astronaut with the dogs in his photo).

Lauren’s part in the webcast, in particular, led to what is probably the most wonderful video I’ve ever seen posted to Twitter—4 year old Ryan being thrilled to see someone who looks like her explaining spacecraft to millions of people. And Lauren responded!

The next flight of Dragon 2 will be carrying 4 crew members for an extended stay at ISS. Among them is Victor Glover, who quickly became my favorite active astronaut at the crew assignment announcement back in 2018. He’s got an incredible story so far, was contagiously ecstatic at the crew assignment event, and I cannot wait for his flight to the ISS, where he’ll be the first black astronaut to fly as a long-duration member of an ISS Expedition.

LauncherOne Flight One Achieves a Few Seconds of Powered Flight

Virgin Orbit carried out their first flight this past weekend, and as most first launch attempts go for a new launch vehicle, it ended in a failure. But not without checking off a ton of items on the rundown:

For about 9 seconds after drop, the flight went perfectly. Through some of the most challenging portions of our flight — release, the controlled drop, the rocket’s ignition sequence, and the initial portion of guided, powered flight — every part of our system did exactly as we designed it to do. We have solid data from hundreds of channels and sensors — and in looking at those, we see performance that is well-matched to our predictions and to the extensive data we have from our models and ground tests.

At that point, as you can see in the video of the flight, the engine shut down for an as-of-yet-unknown reason. Some of the initial tweets in the moment made it sound like the flight was terminated—as in they commanded the rocket to be destroyed—but apparently that wasn’t true:

About 9 seconds after drop, something malfunctioned, causing the booster stage engine to extinguish, which in turn ended the mission. We cannot yet say conclusively what the malfunction was or what caused it, but we feel confident we have sufficient data to determine that as we continue through the rigorous investigation we’ve already begun. With the engine extinguished, the vehicle was no longer able to maintain controlled flight — but the rocket did not explode. It stayed within the predicted downrange corridors of our projections and our Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launch license as the vehicle fell to the ocean, posing no risk to public safety, no danger our aircrew or aircraft, and no significant environmental impact.

As they go on to talk about in the blog post, they have an autonomous flight safety system on the vehicle, but they didn’t need to use it because the vehicle itself was maintaining its course in the “predicted downrange corridors ” all the way to the ocean surface.

I’m curious if that is specific to this launch and the clearances they had for it, or if that will be a feature of every LauncherOne flight (unless the specifics of a mission prevent it).

Whatever the case is, I hope Virgin Orbit finds and solves the issue quickly. They’ve got plenty of hardware in the barn, so we should see them back at it soon enough.

And above all, they should all be proud to have gotten to this point, with a fully-loaded vehicle dropping off their 747 and lighting its engine for the first time. Huge moment.

Commerce Department’s New Remote Sensing Regulations Make a Surprising Amount of Sense

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

The revised regulations, finalized after months of interagency review, would subject systems to only the “bare minimum of conditions” if they offer capabilities no better than what is available by foreign competitors, with somewhat more stringent conditions if they offer better capabilities or novel services not otherwise available.

It’s worth reading Jeff’s article on these changes. They make so much sense that I almost have nothing to say about it.

The one question I have is how Tier 3 systems, classified as those having “a completely novel capability” not available elsewhere in the world, will be looked at if their approach is novel but not a risk to national security in any way. The rules are just vague enough to leave some confusion there, but maybe I haven’t read enough.

Which would be understandable, because the document explaining the new rules is massive.

Northrop Grumman Receives $2.37 Billion Contract for OPIR Development and Procurement

Sandra Erwin, for SpaceNews:

Two years ago the Air Force selected Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin as the prime contractors for the program known as Next-Gen OPIR. Lockheed Martin has received more than $3 billion in sole-source contracts to develop and produce three geosynchronous orbit satellites. Northrop Grumman got a $47 million contract in August 2018 to begin designing the polar satellites. This latest award funds the development of two satellites and early procurement of hardware. Another contract for production and integration will follow in 2022.

Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said the contract award to Northrop Grumman was accelerated in an effort to inject cashflow into the defense industrial base.

Roper has been the chair of the Space Acquisition Council, which has been trying to find ways to get funding out into the industry during the pandemic to help contractors of all sizes. They’ve moved much slower than I would have expected when hearing about the Council in the early days, but seems like the news will start flowing now.

Starting with what is essentially advancing funds that were already planned is nice, but I’m expecting to see some splashier funding setups soon enough.

Episode T+158: Doug Loverro Resigns, and a Bit About the Artemis Accords

The head of human spaceflight at NASA resigned last week, just before the most important crewed launch the agency has seen in a decade. However, it appears as though the resignation is related to the Artemis program and its landers. I give some thoughts on the implications of the departure, and also cover a recent development in international space politics—the Artemis Accords.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 37 executive producers—Brandon, Matthew, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and six anonymous—and 371 other supporters.

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First Two Gateway Elements to Launch Together

In a series of interviews last week, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations announced that the first two elements of the Gateway—the Power and Propulsion Element and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost—will be integrated on the ground and launched together on a Falcon Heavy with its extended fairing in 2023. From Stephen Clark’s interview over at Spaceflight Now:

“What we had was a Power and Propulsion Element that had its own launch on a Falcon Heavy, and we had a HALO with its own launch on a Falcon Heavy, and they were then going to have to have independent propulsion systems, and independent docking systems, and independent power and guidance and control systems,” Loverro said. “They were both going to have to independently get their way to the moon and then (autonomously) dock with each other.

The decision was primarily communicated as a way to eliminate technical risk and complexity, but it certainly plays well on the political and budgetary side of things, too. The convergence of political factors this year are a nightmare for NASA’s budget outlook, not to mention the federal budget generally.

It’s an extremely politically-charged presidential election year, with an ongoing pandemic that is unlikely to be over anytime soon, with major swings possible for NASA policy via either a presidential changeover, or a congressional reshuffling.

It’s pretty likely no budget will be passed until after the election, with continuing resolutions holding us over well into 2021. We’ll see what the election brings, but either way, NASA is cutting costs and risks wherever they can to free up as much money possible for the human landers, since it’s unlikely they’ll be the beneficiaries of a budget boost in the future.

Thank You to April Supporters!

Very special thanks to the 402 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off for the month of April. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, and it’s your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 37 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Brandon, Matthew, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and six anonymous executive producers.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, join the crew of supporters and producers!

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Episode T+157: Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX Win NASA Lunar Lander Contracts

NASA announced three contract awards for the Artemis Progam’s Human Landing System—a Blue Origin-led team, Dynetics, and SpaceX’s Starship. I talk through some thoughts on each landing system and what the future might hold for NASA, regarding both politics and decisions.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 37 executive producers—Brandon, Matthew, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and six anonymous—and 363 other supporters.

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